Apocalypse now: Why extending religious discrimination laws to include personal philosophies exposes the flaws in protecting beliefs

A climate of fear has gripped the nation. And I’m not talking about the terror being inflicted upon the nation’s TV-watching classes by Big Brother.

There has been an air of expectation, since 9/11, that the worst is yet to come that atrocities will be rained down upon us. Add to that the fact that huge numbers of us work in office blocks, worrying every time an aeroplane comes within three miles of the building and wandering around muttering “there but for the grace of God”, and it’s clear why people turn to religion.

To aid them in the belief that, if they bury their head in a very big book, everything will be all right, in April the government helpfully extended the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations to include ‘any philosophical belief’. This is a bit of a paradox in an age when it appears we really worship the ‘stars’ spewed out by our TVs, computers and cinema screens. Yet the big clue that there is a real sense of unease about the place is the fact that there are so many science fiction films being made.

Cult classics

When the Cold War was at its height, so was Hollywood’s interest in all things extra-terrestrial and scientific, with such third-rate ‘classics’ as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day the Earth Caught Fire capturing the imagination of the nation. Post-9/11 there was an explosion of sci-fi ‘cult classics’, including Alien Hunter, I-Robot and a double dose of The War of the Worlds.

But as the cinematographers once again turn their lenses towards the heavens to help take our minds off our earthly troubles, we must not turn our backs on the terror that stalks the streets in our own backyards. But it’s not the ‘terrsm’ feared by George W Bush it’s the terror that is the inexorable rise of religious fundamentalism.

Having previously said in these pages that legislation is good for HR, it has to be said the extension of the law against religious discrimination is a major spanner in the works. For now we have protection for cults such as the Davidians, the Concerned Christians, the Scientologists and, indeed, the Scientomogists. Although quite how an employment tribunal would rule on whether someone’s philosophical belief had been infringed remains to be seen.

Bearded laddies

In the peace-loving country that is The Netherlands, they have a saying: ‘Never trust a man with a beard’ – an eminently sensible approach to facial hair, which rightly supposes those with follicly well-endowed chins have something to hide – even if it is only their chins. And many religious fundamentalists do indeed sport excessive beard-like structures. It would also be sensible, therefore, to never trust a man in a hat, as big hats are very much flavour of the decade with the keepers of the faith, the bishops and clerics.

And remember it is men (not women) in hats. For in the eyes of God (a man), there is only one serious type of person worthy of consideration (men). The others (women) can do the housework and look after the children.

If that sounds extreme, it is. Extremely offensive to women, that is.

Hope springs eternal

But there is hope. For perhaps the extension of the law is just a precursor to the single equality Act promised by the newly formed Commission for Equality and Human Rights (although little is likely to happen before the end of 2008 if recent reports are to be believed).

The trouble is, human rights are incompatible with religious beliefs – just look at the confused position of organised religions on the ordination of women, the intolerance displayed towards gays, and the positive messages we can all take from the Taliban. As philosopher AC Grayling points out, as all the religions of the world constantly blaspheme against each other they are destined to slug it out to the death, such is their mutual intolerance.

Exploitation

Of course, exploiting people in fearful times is not the exclusive territory of the world’s religions. In the workplace, gangmasters have been exploiting migrant workers for years. But then there’s little to choose between an unscrupulous gangmaster and a big-hatted propagator of religious certainty. The only difference is that you don’t (always) have to die before you get your rewards if you work in the service of the gangmaster.

Karl Marx described religion as ‘the opium of the people’. In the sense that the drug reduces a person’s capacity to think straight, he was right, and workplace equality will remain far off as long as there are laws to protect the mad ramblings of intolerant individuals.

Unfortunately, no-one embodies that spirit more than Tony Blair who, when short of a rational argument (or any hard evidence), said his decision to take us to war in Iraq was informed by his belief in God. And with the insurgents also claiming to be doing God’s will, things do look a bit bleak.

Trust no-one. Live in fear. Buy yourself a very big hat.

Debate

Do you agree with Tony? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to personneltoday@rbi.co.uk




 

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